All tennis wonders: Was the fix in on the Davydenko/Arguello match?

November 27, 2007 5:11 AM
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First it was cycling.

Shortly after, basketball and the NBA reeled under the discovery that an official had made calls for bookmaker friends.

Then baseball and Barry Bonds took center stage.

Horse racing suffered from charges of illegal medication.

Now it is tennis’ turn to face the heat.

Is it smoke or substance?

As far as the European connection is concerned, it is a prairie fire. A European bookmaker provided the Association of Tennis Professionals with a "highly subjective" list of 140 matches in the last five years that he deemed "suspicious."

The tennis mess is more insidious than any of the others. It does not involve drugs or illegal medications, as the others did.

This one involves alleged downright cheating, throwing matches, and big money.

It may not be a Russian plot, but it was Russian money, and the top-ranked Russian player, that set off the alarm.

It started in Sopot, Poland, in August, at the Prokom Open, when Nikolay Davydenko of Russia, the fourth ranked professional tennis player in the world behind Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Kokovic, played against Martin Vassallo Arguello of Argentina, ranked 74th. Davydenko has won 11 ATP singles titles and reached the semi-finals of the French and U.S. Opens last year and this year, and the French Open two years ago.

Davydenko won the first set against Arguello, as expected, 6-2. He lost the second 6-3, and was trailing Arguello 2-1 in the third when he retired because of a foot injury.

Tennis is a very big betting sport in Europe. Betfair, the big betting exchange that has a million customers and handles five million betting transactions a day, says tennis ranks only behind soccer and horseracing.

Until the Davydenko-Arguello match, Betfair had never voided a bet. But wild fluctuations in the betting pattern on the Davydenko match alerted Betfair, particularly sensitive to such swings because you can bet on athletes to lose as well as win with the exchange. The company says it has 40 employees who track the flow of money daily, and it was Betfair that informed the ATP that huge amounts poured in from Russia on the match.

An abnormal amount of money was bet before the first serve of the match — most of it on Davydenko to lose — and nine people in Russia bet $1.5 million in U.S. dollars — 10 times the normal amount for a match of this caliber — that the 74th-ranked player would beat the world’s 4th ranked. Their bets were declared null and void by Betfair.

Davydenko vehemently denied inferences that he withdrew because of the attempted betting coup. "I’ve never gambled in my life," he told reporters, "and I don’t know any guys who do."

Perhaps, but the August incident was followed by two others. At the St. Petersburg Open in October, Davydenko started big, winning the first set 6-1, then dropped the second and third, 7-5 and 6-1, and was handed a code violation for not trying by the umpire. He was fined $2,000 by the ATP, but the fine was rescinded on appeal.

A week later in Paris, Davydenko lost 6-2, 6-2 to Marcos Baghdatis, and during that match the umpire warned Davydenko to play to his fullest ability.

Davydenko is typical of the pro tennis crowd. He is intelligent and sophisticated, and speaks Russian, German and English. He is 26 years old, and has played tennis since he was 7, winning renown for his nonstop travels and seemingly limitless energy. He plays in more tournaments than any other player on the ATP tour, and fatigue is a possible explanation for his losses, despite his nickname of Iron Man. So is the foot injury, and the possibility that Russian gamblers knew about it before the Arguello match.

Davydenko has complained about the constant turmoil and questions about Poland, but he also has refused to turn over his phone records, as the ATP has requested, raising more questions. The ATP got tough, ordering all players competing in their 63 tournaments to report any gambling or fixing. It suspended Alessio Di Mauro of Italy, ranked 124th in the world, for nine months and fined him $60,000 for gambling online on 120 matches in seven months last year and this. Had he been found guilty of betting on his own matches, or affecting the outcome of any, he faced a lifetime ban.

Davydenko plays in the Davis Cup for Russia against the U.S. starting Friday in Portland. The eyes of Oregon, and of the tennis world, will be on him.